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At the Royal College of Art, I performed at student shows sawing women in half, dancing with a dummy woman that disintegrated. The staff called this “silly bugger activity”. I left with a first class degree and a silver medal.

If you thought true surrealism died with that epitome of eccentricity Salvador Dali then think again. Bruce Lacey is a serious contender as his modern day equivalent. Co-curated by Jeremy Deller and Prof. David Mellor, the exhibition at Camden Arts Centre takes us on a rollercoaster through Lacey’s life and work, elements which regularly intertwine.

Indicating all the while the influence Lacey has clearly had on Deller’s work, the show is streaked with humour and uses Lacey’s real life experiences and artefacts as the medium to build an enchanting portrait. Lacey’s own commentary serves to bring us that much closer to the artist himself. You feel at times as if you know him. You want to know him. The stark contrast between the dry academic text of colossal Tate exhibitions and the colloquial storytelling soliloquised here, is palpable. I can’t see Damien Hirst being up for this. But that’s why it is so absorbing. You don’t feel as if you’re just looking; you’re experiencing, interacting. Quite literally in the case of the machines. As with the Deller exhibition, walking around the show I felt a genuine connection with the person. Some artists are able to do that. Some cant. Some don’t want to. Humour plays a big part in developing this feeling, as does text. Writing, especially about yourself, can create the illusion with the reader of an emotional bond. You are sharing yourself with them. Something about the visual artefact is inherently more detached.

Lacey has spent his life sharing and interacting. As a performance artist, a definition which came to him accidentally as he tried to choose between performing or art, his visual artefacts are rarely just that. As a student of the Royal Academy his paintings were brooding and muted. Technically capable but lacking in the vivacity he clearly embodies. A nearby film playing in the exhibition explains how he took up knife throwing and cabaret style performance whilst at the RA. Now that’s more like it.

Royal Academy paintings

You wonder if his childhood could really have had such a dramatic effect as it seems. He describes with gusto his memories as a child of play-acting, magic shows and amateur family cabaret then recreates it both with his own children and adult themed in his later work. His uncle, a pilot, inspired him to enter the army as an electrics engineer, a short career which allowed him to later recreate large-scale adult versions of the robot figures he played with as a child. The wooden robot is displayed poignantly, alongside a toy Indian, again a recurring theme in his work and in his 80s rituals. Are these links real or fabricated? As with this type of biographical art it is hard to know what is technically true and what may have been added to create a narrative. There are no rules here, no disclaimer stating ‘no actors were used’. This is art. And art can be whatever it wants to be. It ultimately forces you to stop trying to define it and to just go with it. Experience the experience.

Rosa Bosom. courtesy Camden Arts Centre – Taken from catherinemason.co.uk

Taken from Time Out online

Engaging with his machines is certainly an experience. I was very lucky to visit the exhibition at a time when the machines were turned on and it would have been a great loss had they not been. Juxtaposed with the machines, some of which seemed to watch you with their grinning, painted and unseeing eyes, is an array of memorabilia. Again, unlike many background exhibition documentation, this selection is absorbing. Without even reading it, in fact even by just casting a glance across the face of the case, with it’s explicit imagery and technicolor palette, you grow to know more of the man. By this point you are expecting more monty python-esque antics and even as you start to examine the machines you are looking for the joke. Sometimes there is one. Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be. Like me, you might now be slightly perplexed. Until you read his commentary and realise there isn’t meant to be a joke, at least not implicitly. In his own words he describes them as the “equivalent of witches sticking pins in statues of people”. Ah, here is the legendary dark side of the comedian.

School Days – ’63 – Taken from whosjack.org

The machines are a fascinating combination of science, art, humour and politics. The Politician ’64 instructs you to press a button and place your hand into a great gaping, toothy mouth from whence you soon feel hot air being blown onto your skin and you get the joke. But pieces such as Clock Face, ’62 unsettle our equilibrium and tap into our latent fear of the machine. The irony is not lost on me. We worship the machine. Technology has almost developed into a new religion in modern times. But essentially we fear it’s capabilities, as we probably should. The terror of Arnie and the T300 still linger in the memories of our consciousness. What if they got too clever? Came alive? With their logical detachment and emotional void? Scary stuff. But perhaps that’s the point? This was, after all, around the time of major technological advancement, our first visit to the moon, a subject which Lacey and his wife Jill Bruce parodied in their 1969 performance The British Landing on the Moon.

Clock Face ’62 – Taken from cyberneticzoo.com

Since his introduction to art as a recovering TB patient, Lacey has considered his work as his psychotherapy, his method of coping with and expressing his feelings about life and humanity. He says of his machines “I hated Pop Art as it was the very opposite of what I was concerned with – the state of the world around me: war, famine, spare-part surgery. It was satisfying to make these things using consumer objects and technology – to criticise the very society that had made them.”  Though his machines sometimes seem to criticise life, his performances are funny and engaging, his thesis at the RA cleverly detailing the merits of humour in all aspects of life. His later 80’s rituals are a complete celebration of nature, moving away from the modernisation which so frustrated him and inspiring him to return to paint, resulting in some beautiful mural-style hangings.

Jupiter in Turmoil ’87 – Taken from artslant.com

It is often difficult to separate Lacey’s life and work, indeed perhaps we are not meant to. Although he notes the start of his technical art production as1946, you sense that he was instinctively cultivating his performance art from a young age. It is as if Lacey himself is the artwork, the pieces created by him secondary works, which serve to build up a portrait of a whole; a man who never lived the straight line, and is all the more fascinating for it.

All works are copyright Bruce Lacey

David Shrigley (c)the artist

After the very outward-looking Deller exhibition which dealt primarily with culture and society, I immediately climbed the stairs of the Hayward gallery and stepped straight out of the real world and into the eccentric brain of David Shrigley. It felt completely fitting that the show was in the top space, as if a visual representation of being inside his mind. Deliberate? I hope so.

The first thing I noticed as I came into the room was the eclectic nature of the pieces. Deller’s work had also seemed a multifarious assortment, but only in terms of material and style; the message and topic was generally consistent. Like Deller, Shrigley’s objects also cover a range of techniques and approaches; some intervention, photographs, sculpture, video etc. But the message is convoluted. I accepted after a while that I was not going to ‘get it’, if indeed there was anything to get. That’s not to say i didn’t like it. The contrast between Deller’s clear moral and political messages and the stream of consciousness-feel of Shrigley was like being electro-shocked from the frontal lobe to the neural networks (to continue the brain analogy).

David Shrigley (c)the artist

David Shrigley (c)the artist

David Shrigley (c)the artist

It’s clear that Shrigley has a dry sense of humour. Again, much like Deller, his work makes you laugh – but not in the same way. Deller’s humour was witty and sometimes withering. With Shrigley’s work, I laughed outwardly at the silliness, nervously at the creepiness, and sometimes hysterically at the madness. It’s fun in a disturbing kind of way. It reminds me vaguely of Beavis and Butthead. Not just in the graphic style, which has a similar spiky-featured look, but the general uneasiness of the vibe it emanates. Unsettling. As if the works will smile at you, then turn around and bite.

His wall of sketches seems to be a kind of visual description of a manic episode. Your eyes jump from one drawing to another, trying to find a common link ,a story, but none appears. Maybe I’m just not imaginative enough to spot the connections. Or maybe there is no defined link and it is indeed just the rambling bizarre thoughts of Mr Shrigley himself. I like that I don’t know.

David Shrigley (c)the artist

David Shrigley (c)the artist

David Shrigley (c)the artist

David Shrigley (c)the artist

I succeeded in drawing some meaning from his ‘Eggs’ piece as well as ‘New Friends’, both of which seemed to explore ideas about being different and fitting in. A line of irregular, oversized eggs were placed above one of the spaces, each emblazoned with the name ‘egg’. To me, it spoke of difference and similarity, acceptance and humanity (and animality). Apologies, a bit of alliteration overkill there. This message, about essentially being the same but with slight differences, was continued in the animated ‘New friends’ whereby a square character is cheered and held aloft by a large group of circular characters, but, thinking he is accepted, is then rounded off on a plane to become just like the rest. An animated morality tale of intolerance.

David Shrigley – Photo (c)Artfinder

David Shrigley (c)the artist

Now I wouldn’t say I took anything in particular away with me from this exhibition (besides a generally bemused demeanor) but it was certainly a surreal experience. Finished up by the ultra-dry ‘I’m Dead’ dog and the ‘headless drummer’ animation, to which the gallery guide was gleefully tapping away on his thighs, I couldn’t help thinking that David Shrigley seems to me the art world equivalent of a cross between Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers. A man with an intellectual, manic sense of humour suffused with dark, inter-woven threads of meaning. His portfolio is so diverse I feel that this barely scratches the surface, but I think that the urge to scratch deeper has only just begun.

David Shrigley (c)the artist

David Shrigley (c)the artist

Check out some further info links –

David Shrigley talks to The Guardian readers through webchat – Jan 2012

More lovely images on Artfinder

From Political Art 2012…to Political Art circa 1993. With Jeremy Deller we are going further back. Back to the times in which the mini-Vacuum Cleaner was just growing up and discovering the mischievous artistic potential of the world around him. Back to the days of Ecstasy and Acid House and, even further, to the Miner’s strike and The Who. But although much of Deller’s work may seem focused on popular culture, it also seeks to challenge historical narrative and displace traditional attitudes.

As a visitor to the Deller retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, I had almost no idea of what to expect.  I entered gingerly into the room emblazoned with the poster “Bless This Acid House”, giggling already. Well-placed on the opening door, it set the tone for the entire show; witty, clever and bold.

Jeremy Deller – Bless This Acid House, 2005

Stepping into the first room was a slightly surreal experience. As a child of the nineties (well kind of – I missed all the ‘sorted for e’s and whizz’ good bits, although I did once find my way to a small rave in some woods. Ahem. I digress) I found it easy to relate to the objects and imagery in the reconstruction of Deller’s first exhibition, including the ever so slightly condescending Tate text about how Deller lived with his parents into his late-20s, producing work with his bedroom as his studio. Aha! There may be hope for me yet! His lucky break (every famous person has one) came through meeting that oracle of modern art, Andy Warhol; the androgynous 60’s Midas with whom a few hours spent would imbue you with a body pumped by liquid creativity.

Jeremy Deller – Open Bedroom, 1993. Photo (c)Linda Nylind

There are echoes of Warhol here. The spoof exhibition posters, promoting a Keith Moon retrospective (can we have that please?), the music videos and bright twists on slogans; a lot of Deller’s work is heavily influenced by Pop Art. But then, you can see so many influences in his work it almost deems it impossible to pinpoint any key figures. I was struck by the extensive range of materials, formats, viewpoints, and concepts he explores and even spotted what looked like a tinge of land art à la Andy Goldsworthy, in Barbeque Summer. In contrast, Valerie’s Snack Bar, where you could go for a free cup of tea, placed you within the art object itself. You were the viewed, as well as the viewer. It felt a bit like stepping inside Deller’s mind; into a memory. Or into ‘an OAP youth club’, as Deller put it.

Jeremy Deller – Valerie’s Snack Bar, 2009. Photo (c)Linda Nylind

Jeremy Deller – I ♥ Melancholy, 1995. Photo (c) Isabelle O’Connell

Jeremy Deller – Barbeque Summer, 2009.

It is common for an artist to find a single style and to veer only marginally from that style throughout their whole career. Deller swings violently from performance art to interventionist to painting to photography to documentary and on. His work is infinitely entertaining. It is also very funny. I admit that I laughed out loud as a short film explained his project to develop a hand signal language for the middle classes to rival that of the gang culture, amongst others. Thumb, forefinger and middle finger touching and pointed upwards translates as ‘Antiques Roadshow’, or just ‘money’. It was a bit like seeing a visual representation of articles written by David Mitchell or Charlie Brooker. Hilariously witty, but with a message. In this case, a clear, common sense message about acceptability and unacceptability and our ridiculous societal structure that dictates which is which. Banners in the style of biblical quotation contain Bowie and Nirvana lyrics, credited with ‘David c1 v2’ , and a large wall painting charts the links between brass bands and acid house. Acceptable and unacceptable. Transposed and juxtaposed.

Jeremy Deller Poster. Photo (c)Isabelle O’Carroll

Jeremy-Deller – The History of the World, 1997. Photo (c)Linda Nylind

This theme is continued in his documentary-style works on the miner’s strike and the Iraq war, which take on a more sombre and serious tone. Deller explores the concept of history as a living thing for us to engage with and to delve into. His recreation of the Battle of Orgreave is inspired and poignant. The layout of the project takes us through the written history, factual timelines, contemporary clippings and culminates in a fascinating film documenting the event and his discussions with people who were there. His exploration of conflict and abuse of power continues through ‘It Is What it Is’, a powerful and moving record of Deller’s journey across America with a bombed out car from Baghdad.

Jeremy Deller – It Is What It Is, 2009. Photo (c)Carolyn Wachnicki

Jeremy Deller – Battle of Orgreave, 2001. Photo (c)Linda Nylind

The general impression is of a man who celebrates life with humour and insight. It is an impression of a thinker of the most important kind,. A social thinker. Someone who looks and sees and cares and comments on what is happening in the world around him. I see the same angry, independent, anti-authoritarian attitudes in his work, as I do in the youth of Britain creating protest art in 2012. The message is of life, experience and freedom vs humdrum, hierarchy and slavery. The message is the same now as it was back in 1993. So in the words of that 90’s anti-hero Renton – choose life.